“Elaine was living alone in a lovely apartment on Washington Square. She was the Blessed Damozel, the fair, the lovable, the lilymaid of Astolat. To romantic youth, she seemed the poet’s dream. Those of us who weren’t in love with Cummings were in love with Elaine…. (Cummings and I) would go home to work and then would meet in the late afternoon at Elaine’s for tea. (Edward) Nagel would appear, or Slater Brown, or (Stewart) Mitchell and after an hour or so of talk – though she was silent as a mouse nobody ever dared show off too much at Elaine’s – we would go out to our Italian speakeasy of the moment….John Dos Passos, Memoir – The Best Times.
i like my body when it is with your
by e. e. cummings
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh… And eyes big love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new
I wonder if Cummings learned the beautiful Portuguese word “saudade” during his time in Lisbon? It roughly means the feeling of longing in fulfillment of desire or the melancholy following the attainment of a long held desire, the realization that achievement has not brought about the contentment you thought it would. Saudade is what happened to Elaine and Estlin before and after they married in March of 1924.
Cummings and Elaine had traveled and lived in Europe together and separately since her divorce from Scofield in 1921, much of that time living in Paris. Elaine returned to New York in September of 1923 and Cummings followed shortly after New Year’s in January of 1924. Cummings increasingly wanted to be part of Nancy’s life, she was 3 1/2 years old, Mopsy as he called her, was charming, intelligent and fun, though Cummings was not really capable of being a full time father, as he had a tendency to focus on his own interests and needs. In March, Estlin and Elaine were wed, with the main reason behind the wedding to allow Estlin to formally adopt Nancy, despite the two of them tending to their usual ways, maintaining separate residences at the start of the marriage. Scofield, ever Estlin’s benefactor, payed for adoption papers to be drawn up and on April 25, 1924 Nancy became Cummings legal daughter, though Nancy was never told. Several weeks earlier, before the finalization of the adoption, Elaine’s younger sister had died. Elaine and Nancy left to see after her Sister’s affairs in Europe, while Cummings remained in New York. During the passage over, Elaine met an Irish banker and politician and fell in love. She broke the news to Cummings in a letter later that spring, and by June of 1924, Elaine was demanding a divorce.
At first Cummings was furious and considered violence, either to himself or Elaine’s lover, Frank MacDermot. But as time went on, he realized that Elaine didn’t love him anymore and that he had been more like another dependent on Elaine than partner, and so he agreed to the divorce without explicitly spelling out visitation and custody arrangements in respect to Nancy. Cummings mistakenly thought the recent adoption papers would protect his rights as a father. Cummings quickly realized his error, as his paternity had not been set out explicitly in the divorce. Although Cummings quickly tried to rectify his mistake, even seeking his parents assistance, Cummings soon learned that with Elaine having quickly wed MacDermot and residing in Ireland or Paris, that he had little leverage or legal backing on which to establish his visitation claims. Elaine and MacDermot would make it increasingly impossible for Cummings. In the end, Cummings would only see his daughter 4 more times as a child between 1924 and 1927, Nancy never aware that Cummings was his father. It was not until 1946, when Cummings and Nancy had reconnected when she was an adult in New York City, that as he was painting her portrait, Cummings blurted out, “did no one ever tell you I am your father?” Nancy had spent her entire life up until that point believing that Scofield was her father.
Following Cummings death, Nancy published the children’s books, four fables, that Estlin had written and read to her as a little girl. The books were published with illustrations by a Canadian illustrator who approximated some of Cummings style into his compositions. Their publishing is evidence of the reconciliation between them, as the stories took on more meaning for Nancy once she realized the significance behind them.
No one ever truly knows what goes on in another person’s marriage. Cummings and Elaine were never equals financially and that had to be difficult for both. Cummings suffered from the feelings of inadequacy because he lacked the financial resources to care for Elaine (and Nancy) in the manner to which she was accustomed. But if you appreciate some of the best of Cummings early poetry, both the beauty and the sadness that permeates it, there was obviously a deep connection between the two during the time that Cummings wrote and published his first three volumes of poetry, from which, both of today’s poems come. It makes Elaine’s actions all the more hard to understand, seeing how callously visitation rights and the sudden estrangement played out, and the ultimate betrayal of never telling Nancy that Estlin was her father.
My sweet old etcetera
by e. e. cummings
my sweet old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent
war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting
Isabel created hundreds
hundreds) of socks not to
mention fleaproof earwarmers
etcetera wristers etcetera, my
mother hoped that
i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my
self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)